The issue of forced marriages is back in the spotlight in Australia.

The issue of forced marriages is back in the spotlight in Australia, following reports that an imam in NSW allegedly married a 12-year-old girl to a 26-year-old man.

The imam’s been charged with solemnisation of a marriage by an unauthorised person, while the 26-year-old has been charged with multiple counts of having sex with a child.

But as Erdem Koc reports, it highlights the complexity of the dealing with the issue.

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While child marriage is often associated with countries in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, it’s also a custom which is practised in some communities in Australia.

The case of a NSW imam being charged with marrying an underage girl to an adult male has prompted calls for more awareness to be raised about the issue.

Authorities say the girl has been placed in foster care, and the man, who is of a Lebanese background, has been refused bail.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has welcomed the charge against the imam.

“I’m delighted charges have been laid against the celebrant who allegedly solemnised this wedding that was clearly illegal. We have rules in this country, in this state, about those who celebrate marriages, whether they’re religious celebrants or civil celebrants, and those rules say people have to be over the age of 18 unless a court has decided otherwise.”

In 2013, the federal parliament passed legislation making the coercing of someone into marriage a serious crime, punishable by up to seven years in prison.

The change was welcomed by child advocacy groups, but they say it still doesn’t go far enough.

The chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation, Joe Tucci, says the message needs to be communicated clearly.

“Forced marriage is a basic contravention of children’s rights. Children can’t consent, to being married. They shouldn’t be forced into being married. The whole concept of children being forced to enter into relationship with someone is exploiting them. And I think, regardless of the religious context, regardless of the cultural context, there’s nothing in my mind that condones the act of forcing a young person to being married to an adult when they’re still not able to provide that level of consent at all and can’t do say until at least 18.”

Muslim cleric Afroz Ali, who is an imam in Western Sydney, says the problem is a global one.

“The issue of forced marriage is not necessarily limited to the Muslim community, it seems a more cultural thing. So say for example, you may get people from within the Middle Eastern community or even I’ve heard from the Greek community, and say for example within the Indian community, so there seems to be cultural issues which is then justified through Islamic, in this case, or religious selective quoting to justify what they’re doing. But certainly, within the Muslim community, it is not an uncommon thing.”

While forced marriages are illegal in Australia, arranged marriages are not, and remain a common practice among some communities.

Arranged marriages involve the spouse being chosen by a third party – usually a family member – but does require the full and free consent of both parties, who – at least by law – have the right to accept or refuse the marriage arrangement.

The Australian Childhood Foundation’s Joe Tucci says it’s vital that informed consent is able to be given.

“Young people still need to be able to give their consent to that and they need to be able to back out of that decision to be able to have the freedom of choice to make that decision. I think what we’re seeing is a clash of what is cultural scripts and what are childrens’ rights scripts. And I think, in these circumstances, children have the right to be able to choose and enter into a relationship when they’re old enough to be able to implement to that right. And they can’t do that whilst they’re young.”

But Imam Afroz Ali says sometimes it can be difficult to know when an arranged marriage is actually a forced marriage.

“When it comes to implicit usage of coercion in the name of arranged marriage then there is a fine line where the girl or the male might indicate that they are wanting to get married but obviously to someone who they feel comfortable to get married to, the parents will then utilise this or exploit this situation and then force them to get married to somebody (else) that they would choose. There can be a fine line and in both cases – in the generality of arranged marriages on the one hand, and the generality of forced marriage on the other hand – there’s clear cut understandings that one is permitted and the other one is not.”

The 35-year-old Sydney imam who allegedly performed the Islamic wedding ceremony has been granted strict conditional bail and will appear in court in April.

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